Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Woman's Place: A Glass and a Cigarette (Egypt, 1955)

Continuing with my Egyptian film interests, I decided my next pick would be something from the 50's: as long as it had belly-dancing, subtitles, and came in a Netflix sleeve. This led me to Sigarah Wa Kas (1955) . . . and to a protracted eerie feeling of deja vu.

While watching this film . . . at some point I pressed pause and exclaimed, "This is soooo a Susan Hayward kind of thing." It wasn't just Samia Gamal's hair. It wasn't just her character's helpless downward spiral. And it wasn't just the smoky air of black and white tragicomedy--the melodramatic bar set for all Lifetime movies to come. No answer appearing, I shook off the weird hallucinations of Susan Hayward's face superimposed over Samia's, and tried to concentrate on the story.

Hoda even lights Mamdouh's cigarette for him, and it doesn't make him
 happy. Insert your chosen meaning here. 
The story is fairly simple. Almost gratingly so at times. Hoda (Samia Gamal) is a crazy-famous cabaret dancer and film star. Her talent is undeniable (I mean, this is the legendary Samia Gamal, so, duh) and she practically rules Cairo.  But to everyone else's surprise (including her best friend, played by the fabulous Princess Kouka), she decides to give it all up for her soon-to-be husband, the rising (and broke) young surgeon Mamdouh (Nabil al Alfi). Along with dance, she decides to give up her other great loves . . . cognac and
cigarettes.

After marriage, it soon becomes clear that Mamdouh feels guilty and embarrassed (hubby has two feelings at the same time! Oh no!) that she (A) gave up her life for him, and (B) that they are living in her flat and existing on her savings. Hoda rushes to make him feel better by detailing her plan--which consists of using her savings to BUILD hubby a hospital of his own so that he doesn't have to compete with other surgeons. This turns Mamdouh's pout into a prim little smile, and in the next frame we see the shiny new building, already open for business.

I  really want to see Dalida in a Sadistic Nurse spin-off movie. 
But Trouble is on the horizon, and her name is Yolanda (Dalida), the new Head Nurse. She just wants Biswajeet, ahem, Mamdouh, really darn bad. And because he's Biswajeet a simple soul, he doesn't get wise to her designs upon him until it's too late.

Sensing the intensity from Yolanda, Hoda soon gets it into her head that Yolanda and her husband are having an affair. Of course, she's right to suspect Yolanda . . . but instead of waiting for any concrete evidence, Hoda starts drinking again. And when she starts, she just can't stop. Let the Lost Weekend spiral begin!

Despite,  some excellent maneuvering from Hoda's bestie (who has a great relationship with hubby and POWER over everyone else) . . .




. . . Hoda can't seem to look past her own suspicion and hurt, except when she drinks, that is.



























It will take losing all her relationships (except for the best friend, who is too awesome to do anything remotely un-loyal) and the near death of a loved one to bring Hoda to her senses. Because, of course, Hoda just needs to realize that drinking is not the answer and everything will be hunky-dory again.

So, I looked up Susan Hayward pretty much as soon as I was done with the film, of course.. I was thinking yeah, didn't she do something along these lines?

This shot is a nice stand-in for a "Mind-Blown" gif. 
I grew up on a pretty steady diet of Old Hollywood, and so I have a lot of random movies jostling about in my subconscious. Every so often I get into a conversation about 1930's or 1940's cinema, and I can't believe the amount of trivia I start pulling out of my *ahem* darker orifices. Clearly I spent way too many afternoons watching AMC documentaries and sensationalist 'E' Channel specials. Anyway, after a quick jaunt to Wikipedia, it turned out that Susan Hayward didn't do a film like this.

She did THIS film.

A Glass and a Cigarette must have been based on the plot of Hayward's 1947 film, "Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman." The only major deviation from that film, plotwise, as far as I can tell (because I don't remember this film consciously) is that the vamp is less vampy, and the heroine's final punishment less graphic in the Egyptian version.

I was kinda lying when I said that I was just looking for a film with belly-dancing and subtitles, etc. I was also looking for a strong female vehicle, and the little I had heard about this movie suggested that this might fit the bill. And on one level, I was right. This film is dominated by women from start to finish. When the male characters register on the one's mental screen at all, they usually can be located on a spectrum between flat, irritating, and offensive. But not one of the three male characters with any significant dialogue can begin to compete with the female power triad. Amusingly, they all also fall into one of the standard female film archetypes (for young women at least): the flawed heroine, her sensible best friend, and the vamp or evil seductress. Even Hoda's child is a girl . . . looking like some costume designer's conception of Shirley Temple.

Steal car and drive recklessly to scare your opponent? Check.
Use your wiles to turn him on, too? Check.
Headbutt and punish the real villainess? Check.
All of which leads me to believe that Kouka is basically Catwoman.
The women are the only memorable subjects here . . . and their problems and triumphs are the only thing the story hangs its hat upon. In that, it could be called female-centric. But, for a female centered film that thrives on every kind of female performance (on stage or off), this film also tries its best to localize women's ultimate potential in the home.

Even the best friend, sensible as she is, spends the entire film trying to get a husband, and the only possibility in ALL of Cairo seems to be the lecherous old architect who sexually harassed her upon their first couple of meetings. [Note: She harasses him back for the rest of the film, which ostensibly stands-in for his reform, but I was not amused when they ended up together. Gross.] Samia's drinking and smoking is condemned because it endangers her home (literally, when it comes to her poor cigarette disposal), not because it lowers her own quality of life.

So the unusual topic and the unusual subject(s) are perhaps not so unusual. Perhaps all the charismatic women are just there as a pretty scaffolding. Perhaps they only exist to prop up a crumbling traditional facade. Hmmmm.

One can really see Samia's command of body language and movement
in this portrayal of fraying-at-the-mental-edges Hoda. 
My guess is that alcoholism (especially among the female population) was perhaps a hot-button issue, even a slightly taboo topic in the Middle East at this time. So, even if the pulpiness of the topic and its telling was an effective hook to get people in seats . . . the earlier debauchery guaranteed that Hoda must undergo a significant and (non-titillating) spanking by the end.

As in many Bollywood films I've seen, the pulpiness itself necessitated a moralizing resolution. Hoda doesn't die, but neither is she given the chance to find some sort of moderation in her life. The story petrifies as she moves downward. Her character becomes more and more of a calcified symbol of self-destructiveness, rather than a true portrait of pain and addiction.

What was I expecting you ask? I mean, this is the fifties. Psychology was still the domain of patriarchal Freudian psychoanalysis; sociology was hardly even a recognized science yet; and "The Feminine Mystique" was still just a twinkle in Betty Friedan's eye.

And as much as I know that Betty Friedan would have something to say about the ending . . . oh, so much to say . . .



 . . . One also has to put this film in context--in regards to its American origins and its re-arrangement to appeal to Egyptian psyches.

Watch this movie for the dances, the women, 
and the head-butting scene.
Despite my frustration with this film's idealization of domestic values, and the corresponding uselessness (Mamdouh) and lecherousness (the old architect) of the male leads, I can't help but feel that that the revolutionary subtext of this film well overshadows the maintext in the end.

When the final screen appears, the film's primary verbal messages--that a woman's place is with her husband and family, that children need two parents, and that women should trust their husbands to be faithful--rest on a shaky foundation at best. Because in the end, what you remember is the women doing life, doing friendship, doing careers . . . and looking a damn sight better than the men, too.

Plus, on a meta level, all these women belied the message of the film by virtue of BEING IN IT.


So, sure, I technically prefer my female-centered viewing to include kick-ass women and egalitarian relationships with the menfolk, but this wasn't too bad either. Ultimately, what I'm going to remember is Kouka headbutting her best friend's worst enemy, and pulling her fiancee out the door by the ear. Oh and the dancing. Nobody in their right mind could watch this film and think, "Hmm, I think Samia Gamal should retire." Nobody.

All of which to say: this film is a lot more than the sum of its sexist parts. And pretty, to boot.

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